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Healthy School Lunches: Improving the food served to children in schools

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Nutrition for Kids


2007 School Lunch Report Card: Criteria

A Report by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

Background | Criteria | Report Card | download report

Review Process

PCRM evaluated 22 elementary school lunch programs from the top 100 largest districts (by student population) in the country. The report includes districts from the following regions: Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Central, Midwest, and Pacific West. PCRM dietitians surveyed each food service director and analyzed a week’s worth of menus.

Criteria and Grading System
This year’s review looked at three essential categories for children’s nutrition in schools:

  • Obesity and Chronic Disease Prevention
  • Health Promotion and Nutrition Adequacy
  • Nutrition Initiatives


Each category includes subcategories, as described below, to measure different aspects of nutrition, health promotion, and disease prevention.

Obesity and Chronic Disease Prevention: 50 points

This category consists of two components: First, do districts meet, at minimum, the USDA requirements that over a five-day period, meals average no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat? Second, how available are healthful low-fat, zero-cholesterol entrées?

School districts were awarded the most points when a variety of these dishes were available as “featured” entrées, meaning they were included on the lunch menu so students did not have to make a special request.

Numerous studies have spotlighted the benefits of nutrients found exclusively in plant foods and substantiated the health risks of cholesterol and fat. Therefore, it is especially important that schools provide plant-based entrées that are low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Most vegan entrées are naturally low in fat and cholesterol-free. When offered to children on a regular basis, these foods will help children develop good eating habits that will, in turn, help them maintain an appropriate weight and, in the long run, prevent chronic disease.

Abundant scientific evidence supports the consumption of plant-based diets for health promotion. Individuals following healthful plant-based diets are less likely to be overweight or obese, and they have a reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, and some cancers. Moreover, studies show that vegetarian children have higher intakes of essential vitamins and minerals.

School districts receive more points for vegan dishes than for vegetarian ones because many of the vegetarian items are cheese- or dairy-based and high in fat and cholesterol.

Obesity and Chronic Disease Prevention: 50 points

Subcategory

Data Source

Total Points

Formula

Did the district meet USDA National School Lunch Program nutrition requirements?

School district menu nutrition analysis

25 points

Average daily meal must be:
Fat <30% of calories
Saturated fat <10% of calories

How many vegan/vegetarian entrée options does the district offer over a five-day period?

Recent lunch menu (5-day period)

25 points

Vegan entrée included on menu: 4 points per day
or
Vegan option available on request: 3 points per day
or
Vegetarian entrée included on menu or available on request: 2 points per day

Bonus: A variety of vegan options offered on a rotating basis (3 or more rotating options weekly): 5 points

Please note: PCRM dietitians relied on the school districts to say whether they comply with USDA nutrition guidelines and this year, all the schools maintained that they do. Still, it is important to note that in 2003, a government study found that many school districts were not in the compliance with the guidelines.

An additional note: The USDA’s guidelines are currently being revised to comply with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, which put more emphasis on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. 

Health Promotion and Nutrition Adequacy: 35 points

In addition to focusing on the relationship between nutrition and disease, the report card evaluates whether meal patterns meet nutrient needs and provide dietary options that encourage good health. To that end, the Health Promotion and Nutrition Adequacy category specifically measures whether the foods offered in elementary school lunches provide essential nutrients and fiber.

Each school district was rated on the availability of daily low-fat vegetable side dishes, fresh vegetables, and fresh fruit. This category also includes extra points for school districts that offer a nondairy beverage as an alternative to the dairy milk that all are required to serve, with few exceptions. These components are fundamental to a balanced and nutrient-sufficient meal pattern.

Fruits and Vegetables: To promote health and be nutritionally adequate, meals should include low-fat vegetable side dishes and fruit. Adults who consume plentiful amounts of fruits and vegetables often learned to eat them in childhood. Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamin C, beta-carotene, riboflavin, iron, calcium, fiber, and many other nutrients. When schools offer attractive and delicious fresh baby carrots and celery, corn on the cob, and fresh pineapple and pears, children begin to enjoy these items and regularly include them in their diet.

Nondairy Beverages: Nondairy beverages should be an essential component of the NSLP because many children cannot drink dairy milk. Many children are lactose intolerant or allergic to milk; others choose to avoid milk for other reasons, such as taste preferences, religious or ethical considerations, or health needs. Numerous scientific studies link the consumption of dairy milk to obesity, anemia, ear infections, constipation, respiratory problems, heart disease, and some cancers.

Unfortunately, schools are not required to offer an alternative to dairy milk even if a child has a written request from his or her parent. (Schools are required to offer an alternative if the child has a medical necessity and a doctor’s note.) Additionally, the program will not cover any price difference between dairy milk and alternative beverages such as calcium-fortified fruit juices or rice and soy milk. Nondairy beverages are typically more expensive because the USDA purchases dairy milk through the commodities program and distributes it to the schools at very low cost.

Fortunately, a growing number of districts recognize the various issues with dairy milk and, despite the extra expense, offer nondairy beverages such as rice and soy milk, calcium-fortified fruit juices, or bottled water as options. PCRM awarded points to school districts that offer alternative beverages and additional points if students did not have to pay extra for the drinks. No points were given if children had to provide a parent’s or physician’s note.

Health Promotion and Nutrition Adequacy: 35 points

Subcategory

Data Source

Total Points

Formula

How many healthful vegetable side dishes does the district offer over a five-day period?

Recent lunch menu

10 points

Fresh vegetable, steamed or low-fat vegetable dish (3g of fat or less per serving): 2 points per day

Note: No points for fried or high-fat vegetable side dishes

How many fruits does the district offer over a five-day period?

Recent lunch menu

10 points

Fresh or dried fruit: 2 points per day

Note: No points for canned pre-sweetened fruit

Wide variety of fresh fruits or fresh, steamed, or cooked low-fat vegetables over a five-day period

Recent lunch menu

5 points

Three or more different options available each day: 1 point per day

Nondairy beverage

 

10 points

Nondairy beverage available daily to all students at no cost: 10 points
or

Nondairy beverage available daily a la carte: 5 points

Note: No points if nondairy beverage only available with note

Nutrition Initiatives: 15 points
To be most effective at changing children’s eating habits, school districts must not only serve healthful food but teach children about better nutrition and smart eating habits. This category includes three subcategories:

Labeling of healthful plant-based options:School districts receive points for promoting plant-based foods by labeling these items on their menus. They receive additional points if they have an incentive program that rewards children for choosing these wholesome lunch options.

Innovative Programs:School districts receive points for maintaining gardens, salad bars, farm-to-school programs, or other innovative programs that not only encourage healthful eating but engage children in the food growing and preparation process.

Nutrition Education: Education is critical to establishing good nutrition habits. Therefore, districts receive additional points for including nutrition messages on their menus, presenting nutrition classes taught by dietitians or food service staff, and developing other creative means of nutrition education. Districts also receive additional points for including information about plant-based diets on their menus or Web sites.  

Nutrition Initiatives: 15 points


Subcategory

Data Source

Total Points

Formula

Labeling of vegetarian/vegan options

menu

3 points

Vegetarian/vegan options clearly labeled on menu

Incentives for choosing healthful meal

Food service director/menu

3 points

School districts charge less for healthful meals, reward students for choosing them, or encourage students to choose wisely in some other way

Innovative programs

Food service director

3 points

School garden
Salad bar
Farm-to-school
Other

Nutrition education in cafeteria or through food service department about plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes)

Food service director

3 points

 

Education about benefits of plant-based diets on menu

menu

3 points

Discussion of  vegetarian/vegan diets on menu or Web site

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